charter-ing a path

[Cross-posted from the Re:Thinking blog at CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources, where I’m honored to serve as Distinguished Presidential Fellow. Check out all the great content at CLIR!]

In recent years, we’ve guided four separate cohorts of the graduate fellows who participate in the Scholars’ Lab’s Praxis Program through an unusual exercise. Praxis is a team-based fellowship, in which six students, from a variety of humanities and social science disciplines and in varied phases of their graduate careers, spend two full semesters working together to design, create, and launch a digital project—either “from scratch” or by building on and refining the work of the previous year’s group. They do this with the benefit of careful mentorship, smart technical instruction, and lots of free caffeine and therapy from University of Virginia Library faculty and staff.

Our fellows’ first challenge, though, is not the daunting one of formulating a scholarly question that lends itself to exploration through building. Nor is it the challenge of learning a new digital production method (or four, or five), nor even of designing a system that can make a meaningful technical or intellectual contribution to humanities teaching and research (like the 2011-13 cohorts’ Prism project, or the past two groups’ revival of the Ivanhoe Game). Instead, our fellows nervously draft a project charter.

What is a charter, and why do we recommend it at the outset of a new collaboration? It was a Twitter conversation on collective authorship and the Praxis Program, recorded here, that made me think a post like the one I’m writing now might be useful. And therefore I’m inclined to answer a question like this by starting with other ones, which typically emerge near a project’s end, when students, faculty, and collaborating staff members are considering how to represent their contributions to the broader scholarly and technical community. Specifically, how should authorship be listed on the project’s website, and on the conference papers, posters, and published essays and book chapters that will play such an important role in disseminating results and boosting careers? What’s the fairest and most transparent way to give credit where credit is due, particularly in a situation—entirely common to the digital humanities—where one’s team crosses more than disciplinary boundaries, and in fact verges into the inter-professional, a realm of sharply differing approaches to questions of authorship and fair-dealing?

Well, it depends. It depends on the make-up of the team, on who wants and needs what, and on the basic (and likely internalized, differing, and unspoken) assumptions with which you and your collaborators begin your work.

The purpose of a project charter—which should always be a living document, subject to revision by the team—is less to settle and more to prompt hard questions like these. By addressing such issues near a project’s outset, groups that consciously chart(er) a path seem more likely to make thoughtful authorship decisions down the road, particularly at moments when they may be scattered geographically or pressed for time. But as you can see from the student-written 2014-15 Praxis Program Charter, from the charters drafted by previous groups, from the resources we provide them for thinking about the exercise, and from the blog posts they’ve written about the experience of charter-writing, a good deal of effort and empathy is called for. Although we typically start by focusing the team’s attention on the problem of shared credit (something being taken up by various groups in different ways: see FairCite and its proposed declaration, the Collaborators’ Bill of Rights, Neatline’s narrative approach to a credits page, and new and very promising work toward an open standard and shared taxonomy), project charter conversations quickly and fruitfully veer in other directions. For the Praxis Program, these have ranged from issues of sustainability and long-term responsibility for research outputs to specific ways of supporting open communication, constructive criticism, the freedom to fail, and the fostering of personal growth. They have led to statements that blend values and group ethos with the nuts-and-bolts of day-to-day work: touching on specific ways to foster diversity of thought and experience; on obligations toward each other and toward past and future cohorts; on decision-making around open source and open access; and on the very notion of “eupraxia,” or how to be and do good. These are, I expect, uncommon conversations in a humanities graduate education system that is still overwhelmingly predicated on solo work and competitive, individual achievement. I am grateful for them.

This summer—after several years of teaching and guiding grad students through the process of drafting of project-specific Praxis Program charters—the faculty and staff of the Scholars’ Lab finally got together to write a more general one of our own. It represents, as we say in the document, “our core and shared ethos:” what we attend to, and how we see ourselves. You can read the Scholars’ Lab’s staff charter here.

(For more about the Praxis Program at the Scholars’ Lab, see “Praxis, Through Prisms: A Digital Book Camp for Grad Students in the Humanities,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2012 “Digital Campus” edition. Praxis was created with seed funding from the Mellon Foundation under the auspices of the Scholarly Communication Institute in 2011 and is now a program of the UVa Library. It also inspired the creation of the international Praxis Network and various professional development programs in the library community, such as Columbia University’s Developing Librarian Project and others presented at this year’s DLF Forum. Praxis and other SLab graduate fellows blog about their experiences in our programs, step by step, as a way of getting more comfortable with sharing iterative work and communicating with broader and more diverse audiences. You’ll find their latest posts here. Finally, Jeremy Boggs announces the Scholars’ Lab charter as part of a SLab website revision that also includes an Accessibility Statement—perhaps the first published by a digital humanities center in the United States—and a technical colophon.)